|Apr/May 2005 Salon|
For those of us who were neither exalted nor downcast by the verdict in the O.J. Simpson criminal murder trial, the emphatic reactions of those who were so moved still remain the most significant outcome of that decision. Simpson's may not turn out to be the "trial of the (20th) century," eclipsing the Lindbergh case or the Scopes "Monkey Trial" or the Sacco and Vanzetti case, but it may well turn out to be the most paradigmatic. We choose the landmarks of our collective memory with little more discretion or care for historicity than do family members when they select and then magnify certain domestic landmarks to suit their own emotional needs, creating myths about the time Grandpa got drunk and fell down the stairs or the long and glorious war waged between Mother and her brothers.
We live out of our imaginations far more than we are willing to admit, and the imagination is a creative muscle. Our stories about the present and past tell us more about who were are, think we are, or want to be than they do about what is going on in the world around us or what has taken place in the past. The Simpson verdict took so many people by surprise because it showed us something about ourselves that we did not expect to see: how different were the two or more worlds we live in while going about the business of our lives with no awareness of the wide gulf between our separate perceptions of reality. When we reacted with rapture or despair as the foreperson declared "not guilty" in response to the court clerk's flat recitation of the charges, we were expressing where we really live, giving voice if only by stunned silence to our true selves with an honesty that we rarely allow. Those cris de coeur were nothing so simple as racist shock or racial relief. They originated from someplace too deep for any totally satisfying analysis. All we could do in the face of such reactions was to acknowledge our unpreparedness for them, before retreating back into our familiar and comforting myths about each other.
Yet, the divisions among us are, and always have been, built more on contrivance than fact. Racism, the deliberate denigration of a defined group under the rationale of some supposed inferiority, is itself a pathology we originally constructed out of economic and social convenience. That it managed to mutate and take on a life of its own through each succeeding generation speaks more to the nature of social pathogens than it does to reality. A merely convenient 17th-century fiction concocted by the privileged to create a buffer of poor people of non-African descent between themselves and their slaves, the concept "white" eventually developed into a faith that no American could deny except at his or her peril. The fact that we still entertain widely differing views about the roles that slavery and racism have played in our history and argue even more vehemently about what the proper remedies are for the social ills they have caused tells us just how imperfect is our understanding of this bizarre psychology we have inherited like some embarrassing family malady, generation to generation. That "race" should remain a viable idea at all against all biological and cultural evidence indicates how deeply we have been infected. Some day that four-letter word will be seen as the emperor's new clothes of a social fabric we have outgrown. But enlightenment won't happen tomorrow, and it will never happen at all as long as we refuse to question its basic assumption and prefer to go on believing that there is some immutable underlining reality to the concepts "white" and "black."
Even so, concepts without bases in fact, or bases that are at most marginal, can seem as real and, on the level at which we conduct our ordinary lives are indeed as real, sometimes more so, than demonstrable realities. We are still trying to come to grips with the strange twists that such third-rate thinkers as the Nazis gave to the word "Jew." At the time, a significant portion of the concerned world saw the outrageousness of distinguishing "Jew" from "German," never mind the fiction asserting a superior breed that did not include any categories of humankind but itself. Jorge Luis Borges recounted a campaign that anti-Nazi Argentineans waged to combat the cruel idea that someone could be considered un-German (or un-Anything) because he or she was Jewish. But the Nazi idea—that Jewishness is inherited—though based on nothing more substantial than wishful thinking, is the one which has largely prevailed not just for anti-Semites but among most gentiles, and even for many Jews.
In a similar fashion, in the 1960s, people identifiable as of African ancestry insisted on adopting the term "black," a word that was hardly descriptive of their physical appearance but was at least of their own choosing, as "Negro" and "colored" were not. "People of color," meant to include all non-"whites," now the preferred designation for many of those who cannot trace their ancestry to an exclusively European source, is not a solution to the problem, any more than "African American" is. We keep trying out new words, as if words could by themselves change reality.
But, while "racism" may be all too real, "race" is not. Yet we continue, those of us who are identified as "whites" as well as those called "blacks," to accept the premise that ancestry to even one dark-skin African (and who is to be the definer of "dark"? do Nigerians think of themselves as "dark"?) makes someone "black," "African-American." The notion is so ingrained that even the best-intentioned among us accept it unquestioningly, rejecting even the kinds of nuance offered by other racialist cultures which find room in their social lexicons for other social gradations—"octoroon," "creole," e.g.
It even assumes a ritualistic if not overtly religious significance. All religions have their notions of defilement and corresponding rites devised to protect or cleanse the faithful from a perceived contamination. The practice of such laws and ceremonies is to both shield and to identify—shield from the insult of a foreign or "unclean" element, and distinguish true believers from those who do not share our faith in what constitutes unclean or alien.
"Race" has more in common with these ritual theories than with any intellectual constructs that can be defended without resort to a priori assumptions. The notion that one drop of "black" blood (the perennial fright wig of the Ku Klux Klan) makes someone in fact "black" and thus a threat to those whose own bloodlines are "pure" is very close to the assumptions underlying the socio-religious laws that prohibit the touching of "the other's" person or his or her entry into one's house or the eating of his or her food. House slaves in America wore white gloves so as to render at least the appearance of non-contact between "the other" and the elect (though the slave nanny's teat and milk were apparently good enough for the master's children). Sexual contact was, and even after emancipation continued to be, forbidden between "blacks" and "white" women. Rape by a "black" man of a "white" woman was a crime so heinous that recourse to normal judicial procedures was deemed unnecessary. The rapist (the accusation was proof enough of guilt) was summarily and ritualistically executed in the name of the community at large, most frequently and not insignificantly by burning. We have an image in our mind of the hanged man, the "strange fruit" of Billie Holiday's song, as the historical icon of a lynching. But most victims died by fire, and even those who were hanged were often burned afterward, fire being the most common and most time-honored method for ridding a community of physical or moral pestilence. Sometimes the lynched man's body was eaten by those in attendance at the execution, a practice almost too horrible to consider but one which certainly calls to mind sacrificial rites that go back to the dawn of humankind.
Behavior such as this is not the stuff of mere prejudice. If racism has a root, it lies in the most primitive recesses of our minds.
The origins of our fear (using "our" to mean all of us; Americans of all backgrounds worry about their daughters marrying men who are darker than they) may be economic and/or social, though the groundwork was possibly laid by millennia of historical conflict and demonization by lighter peoples of the north of darker southern peoples in the Near East where so much of European, African and even Asian history derives. Persia seems to have been the locus for the first codification of a perennial struggle between light and dark and, while the conflict may have referred primarily to the supernatural, the models could well have been human. We apparently owe the Devil to this early Indo-European dualism, and when has He ever been portrayed as anything but dark?
It scarcely matters, though, whether the pathology originated in 17th century Virginia or three thousand years earlier. "Race" has become an integral part of our attitudes toward each other, much as an uncorrected myopia or a chemical imbalance of the brain alters how reality looks and what interpretations we should put upon those sense data. An undiagnosed schizophrenic has no alternative reality by which to test the validity of the hallucinations he experiences that are not apparent to others. The rest of us may consider him "mentally ill" or, as in some societies, to be specially blessed and communing with the divine. But when an entire civilization sees the world through a distorted lens, the distortion is evident only to the outsider, and if that outsider chooses to voice an opinion, he or she does so only at the risk of ridicule or worse.
This was why so many "white" Americans (the quotation marks must remain if we are to avoid accepting the categories of racism even as we try to refute them) believed O.J. Simpson was guilty of the original charge of murder, and so many "black" Americans did not. Never mind that different people sitting in the same courtroom came to different conclusions. Simpson was guilty or not guilty because he fit the only MO that counts: he was "black" and therefore prone to violence, or to victimization; his ex-wife, the murder victim, was "white."
When the decision was announced, the commentators who had gathered for instant-replay analysis at National Public Radio were left speechless. When they finally found their tongues (these were not radicals of the left or right but otherwise sober and intelligent people like Nina Totenberg) it was to vent their outrage, a demonstration of spleen that is rare in any responsible journalistic medium. Ms. Totenberg's anger was such that when a caller who was an expert on wife-battering pointed out that Simpson did not fit the profile for a batterer-murderer, however brutally he may have treated Nicole Brown Simpson, Totenberg reacted with a belligerence that clearly stunned the caller.
If it served no other purpose, the trial offered a barometer of where relations stand between the real-life fictions that we call "black" and "white" in the U.S. in the 1990s. "Real-life" because to a large extent whatever we decide is real becomes real, whether or not it has any objectively demonstrable basis. It will do no one any good to protest that he has as many European ancestors as African if he has been pulled over by a cop itching to release his frustrations on one of "them." "Real-life" also because centuries of segregation and cultural evolution have in fact produced very different subcultures within American society. We have only to listen in on the conversations of youngsters who live in our so-called inner cities and compare their language and interests with those of their middle-class counterparts. Or try to imagine how jazz and so much else that derives from the African-American experience could emerge from a society that did not oppress its creators so severely and for so long that the victims were able to forge from their exclusion and pain an art at once distinct from and yet firmly wedded to the culture of their oppressors.
But "fiction" too, because ultimately the notion of "race" is based on a convenient illusion that when someone looks different that must mean that he or she is different, less or more than human, less or more than ourselves. Even use of the word "community" when applied to large groups of people based on their appearance or ancestry begs the question. African Americans, especially those who have had the chance to opt into mainstream American culture, people who value education and self-betterment according to accepted middle-class standards, have no more in common with "blacks" who do not share those values than middle-class "whites" have with their own ne'er-do-well cousins—nothing except, of course, "race" itself. "Black" and "white" can only exist as "communities" to the extent that they are mutually exclusive: "white" meaning that which is not "black," "black" meaning that which is not non-"black." They only coalesce as entities and take on an existence as such when questions of race are at issue—which unfortunately is almost always, at least potentially.
At the moment the Simpson verdict was handed down, the common ground of experience we shared as Americans abruptly fissured like a geological fault, leaving most of us standing on one side of the divide staring with wonderment at the minority on the other side who were cheering and embracing. It was as if we lived in two different countries or, like a middle-age husband and wife, who have gotten so used to each other that one scarcely looks up when the other arrives at the breakfast table in the morning, suddenly discovering that their spouse has been cheating them.
That was why folks like the journalists at NPR so bitterly resented those high-fives and whoops of joy. "How could you do this to me?" was the import if not the content of their response. "How dare you betray me!" assuming to a man and woman that what those Howard students and office clerks were celebrating was the liberation of a guilty man. It never occurred to liberals like them that what those young men and women were actually cheering was the liberation of someone who, whether guilty in fact or not, could easily have been convicted just because he was "black," as so many "black" men have been and still are. Was it not feasible that jubilant surprise could overshadow the natural desire for justice as well as sympathy for the victims which the majority of those students also felt? After all, Nina Totenberg's objectivity was overwhelmed by her own emotional response to the verdict.
It has been pointed out that the trial polarized the discussion of "race" into just the two categories of "black" and "white," leaving out the multitude of Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans and others who do not neatly fit into either of those categories but nonetheless feel the prejudices that apply. True, but the underlying American paradigm is "white" versus non-"white," African Americans being the original exiles from the "white" birthright. Germans, Irish, Jews, and Italians, have all at one time or another been designated non-"white" by those who wanted to restrict them from full participation in the commonweal.
Even the identification of "European" as synonymous with "white American" fails historically to hold up under close examination. Americans from early on have sought to distance themselves from their British cousins, sometimes with laughable results. James Fennimore Cooper tried to make the argument that Americans (by which he meant people like himself) looked different from the British, actually had a different physiognomy. This sort of wishful thinking was the expression of the search for a distinctly American identity in the decades immediately following independence. Those who portray 18th-century Americans speaking with 20th-century British accents should take note: if Mr. Cooper could have pointed to a difference of pronunciation, would he not have pounced on it? "White" Americans are no more European than "black" Americans are African.
Asian Americans who excel academically and in the professions give the lie to the myth of color as the defining factor in what we call "race." Chinese and Korean Americans, who have traditionally suffered for being non-"white," now have become for some the model of what other Americans should aspire to and thereby become virtually "white." It is not coincidental (it never is) that a current TV commercial portrays a married couple whose partners are "white" and "Chinese." Television, especially commercials, show us what we want to be true or acceptable rather than what actually is. The man in the commercial is, of course, the "white" partner.
A hundred years ago Rudyard Kipling, after a coast-to-coast tour of the United States, declared that by the end of the twentieth century, the American complexion would be uniformly brown. As an outsider he understood only imperfectly the strength of the taboos under which we were laboring. Writing forty years later, James Weldon Johnson estimated that 45 percent of American "Negroes" had at least some "white" ancestors. That percentage can only have increased in the last sixty years, the law of genetic dispersion being what it is. People of African ancestry have always been assimilationist, having no social, economic or moral reason to be otherwise. "Interracial" marriages at present are steeply on the increase. Unfortunately, this is occurring at the very time that some Americans of African descent, whose American ancestors did not have the luxury of choosing their lovers without regard to ancestry, consider having "white" cousins something to be ashamed of, as if "white" blood were as much a defilement as "black" blood traditionally has been for their "white" counterparts.
Tit for tat? Yes, but it's also a sign that "black" Americans have assimilated the American ethos so well that as their oppression eases they find status, if only among themselves, by denying "the other," just as "white" Americans have done. In Ireland immediately following independence from Britain, names changed overnight from Murphy and Connelly to their Irish equivalents because the Irish language along with so many other aspects of Irish culture had been so long suppressed (Irish were called "white niggers"). That "black" should first become "beautiful" and then exclusionary only shows that African Americans are following an already well-trod and very American path.